by Naoise Dolan | £14.99 | 9781474613446 | 288 pages | Weidenfeld & Nicolson |16/04/2020
Review by Joanne O’Sullivan
Exciting Times is an appropriate title for Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, and that’s regardless of the fact that its release happens to coincide with a global pandemic. The book follows Ava’s navigation of expat life as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong, and the relationships she explores with a British banker, Julian and Hong Kong lawyer, Edith. It’s not a novel solely built on the story of a love triangle however, it also finds time to contemplate issues like power dynamics, money, sex and colonialism.
Several reviewers have already compared Exciting Times with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The comparison is unsurprising and hard to avoid, and there are certainly echoes of the book to be heard. However, while there are some general comparisons to be made on theme and the impressively uncluttered prose, one of the most striking elements of the novel is more unique to Dolan. Ava’s unvarnished observations on people are sharply perceptive, and create a sense of intimacy that adds an extra dimension to the minimalist style. Her interactions with Julian and his Oxford friends allow for some of the most entertaining comments of the novel. Her impression of Victoria being “so beautiful I couldn’t see why she was talking to me. Sometimes her eyes said: I don’t know why, either”, is one of many incisive remarks on social situations scattered throughout.
Dolan doesn’t limit this kind of commentary to awkward friendships; she pursues more difficult topics and still manages to stay on the right side of sharp and avoid veering into platitudes. Usually, a phrase as stark as; “The English taught us English to teach us they were right”, would easily read as overstated or unfair in contemporary fiction. But when the novel is already so deftly layered with observations on modern day imperialism, the politics of language, and class relations this type of sweeping statement manages to fit in well with Ava’s meditations on politics and life. This kind of criticism is balanced pointedly by Edith’s insightful commentary on China and Hong Kong, and her reminders that Ava’s isn’t the only history of oppression.
The bustling, diverse nature of Hong Kong seems like a very deliberate backdrop. At times it serves as the perfectly eclectic setting for Ava to reflect on issues of identity, sexuality and class. Snapshots of her teaching students are brief, yet still offer an insight into the politics of domesticity and language in Hong Kong. But there are also times when this metropolitan city serves as a thoughtful reminder of how easy it can be to travel far but still be trapped. Ava’s dysfunctional arrangement with Julian and intense relationship with Edith are obvious examples of the novel’s examination of power dynamics and the laws of attraction. But where the subject of power is most interesting is in the decisions Ava makes and how much she traps herself. She loses herself in living with Julian, and makes little effort to untangle herself from the arrangement when she falls in love with Edith. Her judgement that, “everyone in Dublin hated me, such that I came to hate myself too, I came out here trying to change that and it’s kind of worked but not fully”, is a sad but powerful statement. Despite depositing herself in one of the most vibrant cities in the world she is still trapped by her problematic choices and flawed relationships. As well as scrutinising the complexities of love, sex and power, Exciting Times is also a contemporary reflection on the fact that no matter how far you travel only your own choices can set you free.
Review by Joanne O’Sullivan